I met Robinson Esialimba, a Kenyan with a big heart, in Morocco and we immediately hit it off.
We compared everything we saw in Rabat and Casablanca with what was happening at home. As if in deep reflection, he said to me, “There are Kenyan heroes who are doing great things but never get recognised”.
He flipped his mobile phone from his pocket and started to show me pictures of a slow revolution that is taking place in Dandora, one of many low-income neighbourhoods in Nairobi.
Dandora is in the far eastern end of Nairobi and it is here that all the garbage from the city is dumped. Since I grew up in Umoja and Buru Buru Phase One, I know the geography of the place very well.
We played soccer in and around the area. The City Council built beautiful low-income apartments in neighbouring Huruma and Kariobangi. The government, with assistance from the World Bank, also built a lot of low-income housing here for civil servants.
Back then, systems worked. Neighbourhoods were well-planned. There was water and proper drainage. The Kenya Bus Service had scheduled services.
It was pleasurable then to travel down Juja Road to Outer Ring Road. It is here that I did my PhD fieldwork. So I nostalgically took Esialimba down memory lane and promised to visit and see these young heroes that we have failed to recognise.
Esialimba, a volunteer project manager, and I later linked up in Nairobi. He introduced me to Charles Gachanga, one of the young founders of the project, who would give me a tour of what they were doing.
On June 2 this year, I called Charles and we eventually met at the Muthaiga roundabout. He looks thirty-something and athletic, dark in complexion with a sharp sense of humour.
Our journey to Dandora proceeded through Thika Road to Outer Ring Road, taking a left to Koma Rock Road. This used to be a road but it now looks like the surface of the moon with craters filled with rainwater.
We then took another left on to Muigai Kenyatta Road. This was the end of street names. From here on, landmarks identified addresses.
The key landmarks include the dumpsite, Dandora High School and the church, to mention but a few. The stench from the dumpsite is unbearable.
A few metres from there, Gachanga tells me we have reached our destination. It is here that Gachanga and a few friends, including Samuel Ikambi and Abubakar Mope, decided that they had seen enough of garbage and started to unclog the drainage systems, creating open spaces for children to play and improving security.
At some point, they dreamt of developing a green park and succeeded in creating a miniature version. Charles had just come back from abroad and found that everybody complained but no one did anything.
Some would say that this country has gone to the dogs, without knowing that they had a role in getting it out of the dogs.
This Dandora housing scheme was built in the late 70s with funding from the World Bank to provide low-income housing. It was very well-planned, with most amenities and infrastructure provided for, including public parks, parking spaces, emergency service ways, and drainage systems.
However, owing to three decades of neglect and abuse, it has almost acquired slum status and the county government seems either unwilling or unable to respond to the challenges presented by Dandora.
Most housing in Dandora are apartment blocks. A number of these blocks may be grouped together to form a "court". Usually there is a public space in the middle of these apartment blocks called the “courtyard”.
Gachanga and team formed a community service organisation called Mustard Seed, perhaps inspired by the Biblical parable, and began with a pilot project in one of the courtyards.
Initially, they were ridiculed and people dumped garbage in places they had cleaned. “What is your interest in this?” people would ask, and to this Gachanga would politely respond that the question should be, “What are our interests in this?”
Eventually, they saw the common interest in keeping their courtyard clean and safe, and more youth began to volunteer to clean their spaces instead of just idling around. Soon, still more neighbours began to clean their spaces.
With help from friends, they developed a challenge dubbed "Changing Faces Challenge" that pays Sh100,000 for the winning court. This motivated other courts to join the bandwagon.
Last year, 86 courtyards with over 500 youth entered the challenge, and this year Gachanga and his friends expect 100 courtyards to compete.
As we walked from courtyard to courtyard, we were joined by Sylvia Kalo, a young lady in her twenties. With a little sprucing up, she could pass for a model on any catwalk.
On the way, we meet Rev Erastus Muthee of the Kingdom Reality Chapel. The pastor is a tall slender man, impeccably dressed, with an authoritative gait. He deputises Bishop Robert Mdzomba, the patron of the project.
He is impressed with the progress of new areas, such as St Bill's Community Centre Kindergarten. Further on, we bump into a group of about 30, who are in the process of electing their leaders.
A few are in soccer uniform, suggesting that part of the agenda is soccer. The main agenda appears to be security and empowerment. Gachanga suggests that we address them and introduces us. The pastor gives a brief speech focusing on the good works that are going on.
I also congratulated them and explained that I was there to simply record the good work they are doing. I offered to volunteer to talk about entrepreneurship whenever it is convenient to them. Cheers erupted.
Their work has been recognized by Unep. They have won an award for Best Place Makers under the Best Agenda category which was presented during a conference on Urban Solutions at UN-Habitat.
The area's Member of Parliament, Hon. James Gakuya, and the local member of the county assembly, Hon. Stephen Kambi, as well as local administration attended the function to award the 2014 winner of the cleanest courtyard.
The two representatives pledged to contribute Sh50,000 towards the 2015 award and use some of the CDF money to make the roads usable.
The youth here have had a number of challenges including lack of resources for buying tools, flowers, trees and reward money.
They even asked us to make an appeal to the City Government to support their cause. On their behalf, I ask the County of Nairobi to do the following.
Firstly, to issue letters to the youth teams guaranteeing that the public spaces they are rehabilitating will remain public, and the youth can continue to use them for income generation purposes so long as a standard of cleanliness is maintained.
This is important because on a number of occasions, "private developers" have colluded with unscrupulous police to cause the arrest and harassment of some of the youth working on these spaces.
Also, having this written guarantee makes it easier for the groups to approach outsiders for help. For instance, sponsoring agencies are often reluctant to set up equipment for plays, because they don’t feel safe when their contribution might become the source of a dispute or even be destroyed because of a dispute.
Secondly, the youth are currently being paid out of the contributions made by property owner and tenants. In developed systems, ward service delivery is funded through rates on property.
The government, working through the county representatives and ward managers, can ensure that there is proper rate collection and that the residents determine how much of the land rates at the "courtyard" level goes towards paying the youth providing services.
Finally, the government can support competitions such as the one in Dandora, so that we have Changing Faces Kayole editions in Umoja, Huruma, Githurai, and even Kibra, where the National Youth Service is cleaning up.
With such a simple gesture - which hardly requires any financial outlay from the government — it can address multiple other challenges such as youth unemployment, job creation, security and safety, land grabbing poor waste management, thus providing a template for the restoration of Nairobi to its former glory.
Dandora is not without opportunity. Due to neglect of this voter-rich neighbourhood, more than 13 industrial companies took off leaving large infrastructure in place.
Koma Rock road, which links the industrial site and Outer Ring road, is less than five kilometres long. If this road were to be repaired, some of the warehouses could be converted into wholesale distribution points for agricultural produce, tapping resources from Central and Eastern Kenya.
Other facilities could be used to add value to some of the produce. It is a shame when you walk into a super market and find sun-dried tomatoes from Spain or tilapia fillet imported from Asia, when we have hard working youth who can’t find employment.
Imagine what would happen today if the Government announced that all supermarkets must carry at least 60 per cent local content. This would force the ever-expanding super markets to create alliances with local producers and open up opportunity to new manufacturing start-ups to support the policy change.
This can also be extended to include Universities, which could be funded according to how many start-ups they create. Education will make sense when we create opportunities for those who graduate.
This is not an entirely new concept, it is what is happening in the US, particularly in MIT Park, the Silicon Valley with its Stanford University, and The Research Triangle Park in North Carolina supported by more than 10 universities, as well as in Israel where I am visiting at the moment.
If the digitises all its registries and physical facilities, the opportunity for digital jobs will be unexploited. The war on corruption will only be dealt with when we digitise and create open governance systems.
LYING IN COURT
With the opaque system we have, anyone can be accused of corruption and by the time you clear your name, a lot of damage will already have been done. Such organised youth groups would change the face of this country through digitization.
Further, we need digital boards in all poor neighbourhoods, where the government could be posting procurement opportunities for the youth.
Alternatively, such opportunities could be advertised on social media, since this is where you can find most youth, although the digital divide still presents challenges in some low-income areas.
The policy for youth participation in procurement has not been exploited by the poor youths. If indeed it was intended for such youth, then we must link such opportunity to financing from the youth fund.
[If you read this and you have digital works to be done, please contact me. I will volunteer to train these youth who have the education but lack the opportunity].
Sweden imports garbage from Norway to create heat and electricity. Dandora, which hosts Juja Sub-Station, could be the biggest supplier of electricity if we choose to leverage on the garbage dumped there daily. This in turn would create jobs for the many youth in the area.
I was informed that a while back, an investor wanted to do this, but the matter was taken to court and has been lying there for some years.
If this is true, then we request our gracious Chief Justice to help deal with this matter. He is well aware that justice delayed is justice denied and here it is denying many young people an opportunity to earn a living.
Mahatma Gandhi reminds us that “A small body of determined spirits fired by an unquenchable faith in their mission can alter the course of history.”
The writer is an Associate Professor at University of Nairobi’s School of Business. Twitter: @bantigito